Adolescence is plagued with awkward, sometimes terrifying, rites of passage. For author Lizzie Simon, the crucial turning point of her youth occurred during her final year of high school, which she spent studying and living with family friends in Paris. At a time when she was high on life thrilled about her acceptance to an Ivy League college, happy with her new crowd of adventurous friends she was suddenly sucked into the downward spiral of a mental breakdown.
Detour: My Bipolar Road Trip in 4-D, Simon's candid memoir of bipolar disorder, chronicles her early struggles with manic depression and her eventual decision to leave a blossoming career as a theatrical producer in New York City for a cross-country road trip to find others like herself: young and successful survivors of a misrepresented mental illness.
"I definitely wanted to write the book that I would've needed when I was diagnosed at the age of 17," she says by cell phone from the New Jersey Turnpike, a few weeks into her book tour. At that time when she would've needed some honest advice, she says, there were no books about the disorder from "a voice of youth."
Now 26 years old, Simon started her project three years ago. Compelled to revamp the negative images of bipolar people, she traveled across the U.S. to collect testimonies of "success cases" people who are taking medication, living happy lives and thriving in spite of the illness.
But ever the faithful journal-keeper, Simon's account is more about her own narrative than any of her interviewees. "It occurs to me that my little experiment, my voyage," she writes, "is as personal as it gets. I've been thinking about how much it's going to help other bipolar people, but let's get real. Secretly, this trip comes right out of an obsession I've carried since I was tiny, from an ultrapersonal yearning to find my herd."
And it's the unpredictability of Simon's "detour" and her open-mindedness in the creative process that make the book hard to put down. "It's a much more universal book than I ever thought I would write or could write," she admits.
In her first interview in the book, a "rehearsal" before launching her big journey, Simon unexpectedly falls in love with her out-of-control but intriguing subject. Disillusionment then kicks in, when the early part of her trip doesn't lead her to young, ambitious people who fit the description she's seeking. And further into the project, wondering if she's a failure, Simon barely avoids a breakdown when she finally goes easy on herself, indulging in a few days of tanning, shopping and reading fashion magazines.
In the process of writing a book for people with bipolar disorder, Simon's insider voice gives her readers a way to understand the disorder by relating to feelings of anxiety and alienation. And in the process of searching for young role models, Simon has become one herself.